The 16th Saarc summit is due to be held on April 28-29 in scenic Thimpu, capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. However, there are possibilities of a Loya Jirga, the grand council of tribes, assembling in Kabul on April 29 to discuss the fate of Afghanistan.
One of the two will have to change their schedule. Remember that Afghanistan became the eighth member of Saarc at the New Delhi summit in April 2007. It would be ironic that India, which canvassed hard to bring Kabul into the South Asian framework, will be struggling in Thimpu (and probably elsewhere) to retain its toehold in a country it has wooed as a strategic ally to offset Pakistan’s influence in the region.
Recent political and diplomatic callisthenics over Kabul have on occasion involved great leaps of faith, for example in defining the finer distinction, real or imaginary, between the varied species of the Taliban. India is just beginning to wake up to this reality. It is quite likely that the Thimpu meeting could become a major sounding board for the future political architecture in Afghanistan and for its ramification across the region. It all hinges on the way the Afghan imbroglio would play in the coming days. That a future Saarc summit could see a Taliban or a former Taliban representative from Kabul would have seemed nightmarish but it is a real possibility now.
Hitherto most Saarc meetings had tended to mutate into an India-Pakistan sideshow, not without annoying its smaller members. Their issues were hardly given display by Indian and Pakistani officials and their journalists. Does it matter that the Maldives faces a real threat to its existence because of global warming, a little noticed Saarc issue? On the other hand, dramatic images of Pervez Musharraf clasping A.B. Vajpayee’s hands in a deft move in Kathmandu, or Nawaz Sharif and Vajpayee sitting glumly at their "zero summit" in Colombo after the 1998 nuclear tests, or Inder Gujaral and Sharif breaking new ground though all too briefly in Male, are relics of the sideshow.
Given an obvious lack of interest in India for a serious resumption of dialogue with Pakistan at this point in time, and as Islamabad looks too preoccupied with Kabul to be keen to divine the lines that knit Delhi’s perpetual frown, Thimpu could respond by ignoring both (to the applause of the smaller members) and by focusing on the issues of a new beginning in Kabul.
In any case India has painted itself into a corner with its terse if pointless approach to a resumption of talks with Pakistan. If the backstage, with or without a foreign nudge, should yet produce a second meeting of their foreign secretaries the body language would be required to be tweaked for everyone to retain interest in their serious concerns. But already India is in trouble with its single-point agenda – the Mumbai carnage being projected as the main acid test for everything. This has had two adverse fallouts for its diplomacy. The first: Delhi has become stymied by the reality that while the terror attack on Mumbai has indeed thrown up serious challenges to its essential security from Pakistan-based fanatics it will be up to Delhi to choose between a single point theme with Islamabad or to see it as one of the issues in the big picture of geo-strategic jockeying over Afghanistan.
Second: The mandarins in Delhi have been forced to ask whether Pakistan is alone in the business of not cooperating with them over the Mumbai attack. At least the Indian home minister alleges this at every opportunity he gets. He will now have to consider wondering if Islamabad is now in cahoots with the United States in depriving Delhi of important insights into the murky affair of a self-confessed terror mastermind of Mumbai. We are talking about someone who is believed by serious analysts in India to have been a drug trafficking mole for the American intelligence community. India cannot be seen to be using different yardsticks on the ISI’s alleged links with the Mumbai plot and what has emerged as the mysterious affair of David Coleman Headley, involving American intelligence, possibly the CIA.
So two things have happened that should make Indian diplomats sit up. They have been left out of the club of countries now converging on Kabul to seek solutions to its million serious problems. And they have been betrayed by the United States on the Headley affair. On the Afghan front, India shot itself in the foot quite deliberately by going so far to placate the United States that it ended up alienating Iran, which has a major stake in Afghanistan. According to an Indian newspaper report Iran snubbed the Indian foreign minister by discouraging him to visit Tehran to discuss Afghanistan. For the love of America, India has alienated others too. Now it will have to row back hard to revive its older and more durable links with Russia and also improve its frosty demeanour towards China.
Informed Indian analyst M.K. Bhadrakumar, a former diplomat who has watched Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia closely, observed a pattern recently. The sudden dash by Pakistani army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani to Kabul a few weeks back to discuss "matters of mutual interest" with President Hamid Karzai, the two-day unannounced mission around then by US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates whose primary intent was to check out on the intensifying exchanges between Kabul and Tehran, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s consultations in Kabul ostensibly to discuss the bright prospects for Afghan-Iranian economic cooperation, and Karzai’s own two-day trip to Islamabad – all served to highlight the overlapping templates of the power struggle, Bhadrakumar noted.
Perhaps the biggest loss for India in the Afghan power play was its self-inflicted aloofness with Iran and its new found preference for Saudi Arabia, under American tutelage no doubt. Ahmadinejad’s visit to Kabul had an ideological purpose similar to that of India. It was primarily intended to make a big statement of solidarity with Karzai, urging the latter to stand up to the challenge and conveying Teheran’s willingness to stand shoulder-to-shoulder by his side.
In essence, says Bhadrakumar, "Tehran abhors the idea of a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan and wants a settlement that duly reflects Afghanistan’s plural society. Tehran shares Karzai’s thinking that while the Taliban can participate in any inclusive settlement, that has to be on the basis of a willingness to lay down arms and accept the Afghan constitution, which provides for a democratic plural society safeguarding the interests of all religious and linguistic groups." But where is India now in all this?
Similarly, India has been let down badly in its investigation into Mumbai not just by Pakistan, which is to be expected, but by the United States, whose friendship it counts as a keystone of its foreign policy. Headley’s arrest in Chicago last October initially seemed a breakthrough in throwing light on the operations and activities of Lashkar-i-Taiba (LeT), the Pakistan-based group, in India. But instead the Obama administration’s alleged efforts to cover up the details of the case have been taken to their logical conclusion.
Headley’s plea bargain raises explosive questions, say Indian analysts. The LeT began planning the attack on Mumbai some time around September 2006. According to the plea bargain, Headley paid five visits to India on reconnaissance missions between 2006 and the November 2008 strike, each time returning to the US via Pakistan where he met "with various co-conspirators, including but not limited to members of LeT".
The plea bargain simply refers to the Pakistani handlers of Headley as A, B, C and D. But who are they? Will India ever know? Other similar questions and the Afghan imbroglio will be crowding out the usual India-Pakistan sideshow in Thimpu. Afghanistan is the new centre-stage. This will be seen to be the case even from the remote Himalayan perspective of landlocked Bhutan.